On Sunday God’s people across the world will gather in their churches for public worship. The worship of Almighty God and our Savior Jesus Christ is our chief duty as Christians, and also our chief joy. In the services of the church we praise God as a body, as the communion of the saints. We have fellowship with our covenant God and with our fellow saints. The church worships through a set and carefully constructed liturgy, or order of worship. The word “liturgy” refers to the worship of the church and the elements that make up the church’s worship: prayer, song, alms-giving, preaching.
As we anticipate going to the house of prayer tomorrow, it is worth considering a few of Luther’s important contributions to our understanding and practice of worship. Carl Trueman helpfully discusses some of Luther’s insights in the fourth chapter of His book Luther on the Christian Life. Luther identified the core of the Christian life as being the worship of God in the church. He put much stock in the liturgy of the church and insisted that it be truthful, dignified, and God-glorifying. Luther’s theology of the Word and his understanding of justification by faith alone demanded that the liturgy of the church of his day be reoriented. In the middle ages the church’s liturgy was focused on the Sacraments, especially the Lord’s Supper. While the Sacraments are very important and ought to receive due attention in worship, medieval theology emphasized them to the expense of everything else, especially the preaching of the Word. The preaching was allowed to fade away. Luther’s theology demanded a reversal of emphases, the Word and the Word preached taking the prominent position and the Sacraments, though crucially important for the Christian life, taking a supporting position. Word and Sacrament together, in proper relationship, make up the heart of Christian worship. The Word is preached by God’s ordained servants for the edification and nourishment of the people’s faith. The Sacraments are administered for the confirmation and strengthening of their faith. Together by these means of grace the church is built up and the people worship God. We must not forget that the preaching of the gospel is not only God’s speech to His people, it is also an act of worship when the church attends to the preaching. Likewise, the Sacraments are acts of worship in which the church together brings her praise and thanksgiving to God.
Luther believed that the worship of the church was primarily God’s action not man’s. Although God’s people bring to God their “sacrifice of praise,” their activity is subordinate to God’s activity. Luther especially viewed worship as God’s gracious speaking to His people by His almighty Word. The activity of God’s people is their response to that speech of God with worship and reverent awe. The worship of the medieval church had become very priestly in its outlook. Worship was seen as sacrifice. Luther reversed these emphases by restoring the Word preached to the center of Christian worship. We as sinners cannot initiate anything. We cannot come to God by ourselves or through the service of our own works. Rather, God in His grace must first come to us and draw us to Himself. Only then can we respond and offer to God our worship. In the church’s worship God meets us and teaches us, and we respond with praise and thanks. That basic understanding of God’s sovereignty and grace lies behind Luther’s theology of worship. Knowing God whom we worship informs the way we worship Him.